Mass is the Anti-Sacrifice

from-willow-creek-to-sacred-heart-rekindling-my-love-for-catholicismFrom Chris Haw’s ‘From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism‘, pp. 119 – 123:

In “the sacrifice of Mass” we find that there is no more need for sacrifice. The Lamb was slain, and we no longer need to get hyped up for the next sacred thing. To illustrate, James Alison contrasts Christian worship with violent sacrifice and scapegoating. He contrasts the Eucharist, what he calls “True Worship,” with its emphasis on the Real Presence of Christ there, with a Nazi rally:

In the Nuremberg model, the central apotheosis has to be produced by careful orchestration, a deliberate build up of fascination and mimetic intensity in the worshipping crowd, so that in their eyes the Führer really does acquire an aura and a divinity. In the case of True worship . . . there is no apotheosis to be produced, no whipping up of emotions in order that we glimpse the crucified and risen lamb. Exactly the reverse. Part of the effect of the achievement having already been achieved, is that the crucified and risen Lamb is just there. . . . So we can relax, because we know he’s just there. And relaxing is exactly the reverse of a mimetic build up of fascination.

This is describing a core effect of transubstantiation— the belief in Christ’s Real Presence. Instead of building up an anxious need for sacrifice— our vengeful reprisals that “somebody’s got to pay” for the hatred inflaming our hearts— the real, forgiving presence of Christ in “this is my body, given for you” serves to center and calm. In it, we are in the presence of the Divine Victim, who is forgiving us. Again, the eucharistic “host” means “victim.”

And since human violence is most conspicuous in its group forms— the lynch mob, the stonings, the Nazi rally, the riots— it only makes sense that one attempted solution has arisen, the Mass, which is an attempt to remedy humanity by weekly gathering a potential lynch mob and habitually disarming them as they look upon the One whom they have murdered and who is constantly loving and forgiving them. This is one of the best reasons for Christianity to reject mere individualistic applications of faith— of church at home— insisting upon gathering as a group. […]

Giorgione, Christ Carrying the Cross (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

Giorgione, Christ Carrying the Cross (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

The “sacrifice of Mass” is not about repeating or reenacting Christ’s death, as much as making it present. The word “remember,” said in the Mass, means this. The more I have come to understand this word “sacrifice,” the more I have seen that Jesus’ death— and the Mass that remembers it— is a “sacrifice” in the way that Jesus is a “lord.” These were terms stolen from the language of the day and subverted, or we might say inverted. Indeed, virtually all of the words basic to Christianity are stolen from the pagan world, and must be understood for the new meaning given to them, not with their previous bad reputation.

James Alison points this out by noting that the words “worship” and even the word “god,” taken from pagan language and culture, are terms that can only be understood as shady metaphors. The Fourth Lateran Council of the Church, an ecumenical council of Church bishops, held in Rome in 1215, described this by saying,

“Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.”

That is, even when we think we have said something very true about God, it is likely more untrue than true. So our words like “worship,” “sacrifice,” “lord,” and “god,” taken from the violent imagery of mythology, can never be thought to be spoken with the common meaning of that word. They say, “It’s kind of like this, but even more totally unlike it.” Christ’s death is a sacrifice, but even more entirely “un-sacrificial.”

Theologian William Cavanaugh demonstrates the Christian redefining of “sacrifice”:

Eucharistic sacrifice is the end of the violent sacrifice on which the religions of the world are based, for its aim is not to create new victims but rather martyrs, witnesses to the end of victimization. Assimilation to Christ’s sacrifice is not the continuation of the violence and rivalry needed to sustain a certain conception of society, but the gathering of a new social body in which the only sacrifice is the mutual self-offering of Christian charity. Martyrs offer their lives in the knowledge that their refusal to return violence for violence is an identification with Christ’s risen body and an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

– Haw, Chris, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, Ave Maria Press, 2012, pp. 119 – 123

Masaccio, Martyrdom of San Giovanni Battista, 1426 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

Masaccio, Martyrdom of San Giovanni Battista, 1426 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)


3 responses to “Mass is the Anti-Sacrifice

  1. Just excellent!

    By the way, have you ever read any William Cavanaugh (quoted by the author above)? You would love him. His book “Torture and Eucharist” is one of the best things I’ve ever read…

  2. I’m suddenly reminded of how Louis-Marie Chauvet builds on Girardian mimetic theory in a discussion of “sacrifice” and “anti-sacrifice” in his big book Symbol and Sacrament. I don’t have it on hand and don’t remember the section well enough to summarize in detail, but it’s along the same lines as what you are getting here from Alison (also a Girard scholar) via Haw. Excellent reminder of the significance of what we are celebrating at the Eucharistic altar!

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